The world of movie titling

Coming up with movie titles is hard. We all know the tales (true or otherwise) of the problems faced by various filmmakers on learning that their audiences didn’t understand their carefully planned and balanced linguistic allusions:

  • License Revoked: What does revoked mean? Became License To Kill
  • The Abyss: What’s an abyss? Decided to keep it anyway
  • The Madness of George III: What happened to The Madness of George 1 & 2? Became The Madness of King George. (Actually, there’s a touch of the urban myth about this one. But only a touch)

There’s plenty more where that came from, too.

The problem becomes even greater when you’re dealing with a foreign language movie.

Take ¡Átame!, one of Pedro Almodóvar’s finest. Here we have a problem, because átame has no direct English translation. In this context, it can mean ‘tie me up’. It can also mean ‘tie me down’. The double meaning is supposed to be there in the Spanish – it’s like ‘subtext’ or something – but once you translate it, you lose it. So ¡Átame! became Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! for the International market. Meaning kept, subtlety lost.

That’s a real bugger, isn’t it? Of course, once you get into languages like Chinese where one sound can have 40 different meanings, you’re screwed from the outset. Not knowing any Chinese, I have no idea exactly how much subtle meaning gets lost between the naming and the overseas distribution. But I know I’m probably missing something, which upsets me. I like to know what the filmmakers are trying to get at.

What put me in mind of this was the recent UK release of Banlieue 13.

Banlieue 13

That’s the French poster. Couldn’t find the UK poster, sorry. Here’s the problem. The UK title for the movie is District 13. Sounds kind of sci-fi, maybe a bit coppy, doesn’t it? That’s exactly what the poster tries to show, too. Yet ‘Banlieue’, my rudimentary French tells me, means suburb. Suburb 13 really just doesn’t work, does it? We’re in Ali G and the Staines Massive territory with that particular title. So it’s been adjusted to work better for a UK audience.

But at the same time, we’ve also lost a whole level of cultural meaning. Paris banlieues are where all those lovely riots broke out this year. They’re the French equivalent of the ghetto or a Thamesmead housing estate. A futuristic movie set in the banlieues of Paris? Suddenly, you’re getting a whole load of societal commentary and movie subtext from that title. And that poster takes on new meanings as well.

I’m not sure there’s much that can be done about this, short of issuing a rip-off series of notes with every poster. I just think it’s a shame. And maybe it’s a demonstration to us all that even the lowliest action movie can have hidden depths.